“There’s so much that music brings to people. There’s so much that will lift heavy burdens. Music is a healing process. I don’t care if you’re down in the dumps. I don’t care what happened yesterday, what you think might happen tomorrow. There’s a comfort [in it]. It’s like taking medication and there’s a feeling right there that lets you know everything is alright.”
Sister Lena Mae Perry of the Branchettes
Last week we premiered a special project Sister Perry of the Branchettes is working on with Phil Cook. Learn more about that here.
Story and photos by Sandra Davidson
Sister Lena Mae Perry says music is like medicine. She would know. At 80-years-old, Sister Perry has helmed the Branchettes, a celebrated gospel group from Johnston County, North Carolina, for decades. To see her perform is to witness the healing powers of music, and, at risk of cliché, to be taken to church.
Born in Johnston County in 1940, she grew up in a farming family that deeply valued education, faith, and music.
“In my twelve years of going to school, I missed one day out of school,” says Sister Perry. “We had to miss that one day because my daddy said we had to stay home and pick cotton. When the school bus would come by, we’d lie down between the rows so the other kids on the school bus couldn’t see us picking cotton. My daddy regretted [it]. It hurt him to have to ask us to stay home that day, but we didn’t ever have to stay home anymore for the farming.”
Music was a part of daily life and a cornerstone of how her family worshiped. Her grandfather played guitar, and her parents traveled around singing in local churches. From a very young age, Sister Perry’s family encouraged her to sing with her siblings in church. She remembers rehearsing on lunch breaks from working tobacco.
“We would high tail it off to my daddy’s corn patch and get up under those corn tassels where it was shaded and we would start singing and we would start singing and singing and singing till we had to get it right,” remembers Sister Perry.
“We would just be singing until mama called us in for lunch. It was wonderful coming up with the music and the things we were taught. It grew up in us.”
Over thirty years ago, Sister Perry and Ethel Eliot, a fellow choir singer at Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church in Newton Grove, N.C., formed the gospel group the Branchettes, deliberately named to reference the church that brought them together in the first place. Ever since the Branchettes have brought the gospel and traditional African American congregational hymns to audiences around North Carolina and beyond. In 1995 the group received the N.C. Heritage Award, an honor that acknowledged the band’s contributions to traditional arts in the state.
Ethel Eliot passed away in 2004, but Sister Perry and pianist Wilbur Tharpe continued to perform as the Branchettes. In 2015, Sister Perry met another musician with whom she would develop an important musical relationship: Phil Cook
Cook is a 40-year-old indie musician based in Durham who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in the early 2000s on a quest to be closer to the Southern music he loved. He never left. A darling of the folk and indie music scene, Phil was introduced to Sister Perry through Music Maker Relief Foundation after reaching out to them for curatorial guidance on a project he was working on for Duke Performances. The two first performed together at Duke Gardens in 2015.
“We had rehearsed a few songs together that I knew we were going to do, but as happens with Sister Perry she’ll get in front of people and the Lord will speak to her and tell her what song needs to happen next. That meant a song came up that we hadn’t rehearsed,” remembers Cook.
“I just sat down and let her and Wilbur play. It was a song called ‘God Will Take Care of You.’ I saw the entire first 40-yards of people burst into tears at the same time. She goes to her place, and she surrenders, and she’s open, and she passes it on…and then you see everyone else surrender. That’s the real.”
That deep love of music and its spiritual power has bonded Sister Perry and Cook since, and the two have formed a deep – if somewhat unlikely – friendship.
“It doesn’t take me long to scope out people and learn people and what they’re all about,” says Sister Perry when reflecting on her relationship with Cook. “I like his music. The songs that Phil sings, they’re beautiful. They carry a message, and the gospel music that I sing – it carries a message. I was needing to get out and meet new people and Phil was so…like he’d known me for a long time. We just bonded right together. Ever since then Phil’s been in my corner, and I’m in his corner.”
Sister Perry and Cook’s friendship has taken them into music classrooms across central North Carolina and, more recently, into a shared recording project supported by the North Carolina Arts Council for Come Hear North Carolina.
Last April, the Branchettes recorded their first live album in their 30-plus years as a group back where it all began: at Long Branch Disciples of Christ Church. The session featured long-time Branchettes Sister Perry and Wilbur Tharpe plus an assortment of younger artists who helped fill out the sound.
The Branchettes have recorded their music in a studio setting but Cook – who is producing the record – wanted to capture the alchemy of Sister Perry’s live performances that struck the audience at Duke Gardens back in 2015.
“As a musician who plays and performs live and has seen just what happens when you are in front of people and the way the spirit emerges, that to me felt like a condition [of the project],” says Cook. “We should try and invite the spirit in a live setting.”
In an interview on the eve of the recording session, Sister Perry said “We’re putting God first, and when you put him first no matter what come and go, he’ll work it out for you. He’ll do it every time.”
The recording will be released in 2020 on Phil Cook’s new gospel label, and a documentary about the project created by filmmaker DL Anderson will follow.
Sister Perry will turn 81 on January 1, 2020, and at this rate, the year will be a big one for her and her music. She doesn’t have plans to slow down.
“I pray that I can keep my voice, that He’ll keep me up on my feet so I can go and do the things that I need to do cause people look for something to help lift their burdens,” says Sister Perry.
“Music is a healing process. I don’t care if you’re down in the dumps. I don’t care what happened yesterday, what you think might happen tomorrow. There’s a comfort [in it]. It’s like taking medication. I carry the gospel in song, and I really, really love it. I do. And I’ve never missed a beat, honey.”
The Branchette’s recording project features the following artists:
Lena C Williams
Lena Mae Perry
James A. Wallace
The following post draws from the traditional artist directory of our partners at the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
With an entertaining career that spanned more than 60 years, Carl Story (1916-1995) has been called “The Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music.” Story played fiddle with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys starting in 1942, before joining the Navy in 1943. After his discharge, Story helped shape the bluegrass gospel style and led a band that served as a training ground for many musicians.
Born in Lenoir in 1916, Story grew up hearing his father play fiddle. By the time he was a teenager, Story was playing fiddle and guitar and performing on local radio programs. He led a band in his early twenties that included a three-finger banjo player, helping pioneer the bluegrass sound. Story traveled around the region playing on different radio stations. He played in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early 1930s, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the mid-’30s, where he joined Johnnie Whisnant and formed the Lonesome Mountaineers and Rambling Mountaineers. He played with these groups until joining Bill Monroe’s band in 1942.
After World War II, Story reorganized his band in Asheville, signed with Mercury, and performed at radio stations in Knoxville and Bristol, Tennessee. His group, the Rambling Mountaineers performed both secular and sacred music, but most of their repertoire was gospel.
Story’s band recorded with Mercury for five years, and later recorded on the Columbia and Starday labels. During the peak years of his career, Carl Story and his Rambling Mountaineers hosted radio and television shows in several Southeastern states and had a 10-year affiliation with WNOX’s Tennessee Barn Dance program in Knoxville. His band was a fixture at bluegrass festivals throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s.
Story retired to Greer, South Carolina, where he worked as a disc jockey and continued to perform until his death in 1995. Over the course of his entertainment career, Carl Story recorded more than 2,000 songs and 55 albums. A section of NC Highway 18 that passes through his hometown of Lenoir is named in his honor and he is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
“To be born a Lumbee Indian is to be born a singer,” says Malinda Maynor Lowery in the opening scene of her 1997 documentary "Sounds of Faith." “We’ve been singing gospel music for 300 years.”
Born in Robeson County and raised in Durham, Lowery is a scholar, filmmaker, and member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. Through archival images, powerful field recordings, and narration that explores the importance of music in her own family, Lowery uses music as a mechanism for revealing the strength, resiliency, and creativity of the Lumbee tribe.
Today Malinda Maynor Lowery is the Director of the Center for the study of American South and author of the newly published book “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle.” She co-produced several seasons of the hit PBS series "A Chef’s Life" and the HBO documentary "Private Violence."
Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summer with her grandparents in Smithfield, N.C. Music was an integral part of her daily life – her father was a quartet singer and her grandmother was always singing.
“When her heart was heavy there were times when she would just be moaning,” says Williams. “Those songs gave her the tenacity when she was called names, when she was treated disrespectfully. It was like she was really telling me don’t allow what people say to you to be a blocking of you going further but use it as a stepping stone.”
In a typical performance, Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.
“The African American slaves talked about the power of the music. It was a way of communicating something over and above what the overseer could understand. The slave community understood exactly what every song meant. It was a way of escape,” says Williams. “The thing about the songs of the enslaved is that they always looked upward. I’m not in slavery, but there are still issues and concerns of our day and trials and tribulations…and the power of a song is a way that you can deliver your own soul.”
Williams first experimented with combining music and history in a concert inspired by writer and scholar Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson witnessed the performance and was moved to tears. The two ultimately began teaching a class together at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University called “The South in Black and White.” At the beginning of every class, Williams opens the session with music.
“I think people are fascinated not just with the history but [by] the fact that when I present they get to join in. There’s an experience we are all having together,” says Williams. “We develop a community.”
When asked what makes North Carolina music special, Williams says, “North Carolina just has such a presence. We have a lot of history. It is complicated, but in that complication, songs have come up out of it. It came up out of the burden. It comes up out of sorrow, joy, and happiness. It comes up out of family, and I think that’s what makes people feel it. You’re not just singing something as an empty shell. You literally have lived it, and then you’re able to share it. That, again, makes a community.”
Durham’s Shirley Caesar, often called “The First Lady of Gospel,” was a life-long friend of Aretha Franklin. The Grammy Award-winning performer first met Franklin as a teenager when they were on tour with Franklin’s father. Caesar performed at Aretha Franklin’s funeral last year.
When it comes to worship music, Hispanic churches look within. - Jesse James Deconto for The Washington Post
National Religious Freedom Day is on the horizon. Over the course of this month, we will explore some of the ways North Carolinians express their faith through music. To kick things off, we invite you to dive into this 2015 Washington Post article that documents how Hispanic congregations – including one in Durham, N.C. – worship and train their next faith leaders through music.
Since 1989, the State of North Carolina, through the North Carolina Arts Council, has honored dozens of folk artists with the North Carolina Heritage Award. Throughout 2019, we will highlight the eminent musicians honored with the award. Today, we republish the official N.C. Heritage Award profile of the Wilson Brothers, a gospel duo from the western part of the state who received the award in 1998. Jerry Wilson passed away in 2016, and Ray is no longer performing music, but their families continue the tradition of performing to this day, as documented by Jerry’s daughter Tipper Pressley here.
“I know that there’s a gift, a natural gift, that a lot of people have more than others," says Ray Wilson. "But if you don’t work on that to perfection, you don’t ever do much with it.” Ray and his brother Jerry have approached their music with this idea firmly in mind. Influenced by the brother duos that had their heyday in the 1930s, the Wilsons have worked out precise harmonies for the duets that have become the signature of their style. By their own choice, the Wilson brothers have focused their efforts on singing gospel, even when they could have enjoyed greater financial gain and attention by performing other types of music.
Jerry and Ray grew up in a religious family that has its roots in Cherokee and Clay Counties. Their father preached and both parents sang in the choir. However, their first forays into music were instrumental jam sessions with neighbors. Then, asserts Ray, “we got saved and got to going to church, and we started using our talents for the Lord.” They began playing at church revivals and singings, performing songs remembered from their youth and learned from radio and records.
By the late 1960s, the Wilson brothers were performing in churches located in mountain communities throughout southwestern North Carolina, northern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. Balancing their desire to make music with their need to make a living wasn’t easy. “We’ve always had to work hard for a living,” says Jerry, “and you can cut pine woods like Ray did and work with your hands all the time, why you’re not too apt to have the flexibility you need in your hands.”
Despite such challenges, Jerry and Ray have always held their singing and playing to a high standard. They sing tightly harmonized duets that combine a lead with high-tenor harmony, and they pitch songs in keys that allow for a smooth blending of their voices. While both men are accomplished instrumentalists — Jerry plays an acoustic guitar while Ray plays both guitar and mandolin — they prefer instrumental accompaniment that complements rather than competes with the lyrics. “The gospel, to us, is more important than anything--the message,” says Jerry.
Their desire to spread a gospel message to their audience kept the Wilson Brothers from crossing over to perform other types of music. “Here everybody knows you,” Ray explains. “Say you go on a Friday night and you sing country music and then Sunday morning you’re singing gospel songs in church. It just won’t mix that way. You lose all your influence you might have on people.”
Several of their children and grandchildren sing and play instruments, “So it’s going on down,” muses Jerry. “They’re picking it up.”
“I think that it’s the truest music there is. It has a good melody and it has a good message,” Ray says of their bluegrass influenced gospel music. “We’re sincere in what we do. We do it first for the Lord and then we hope the people enjoy it.”